The Blue Ridge Free Dental Clinic officially opened its doors in April, 2005. Since that time, the Clinic has treated hundreds of needy patients and provided thousands of essential dental services, valued in the millions of dollars. Volunteer dentists, competent staff, and significant community support make it all possible. Here are the stories of a few of the patients that we have helped over the years.
Sandy Henson is a sweet girl, only 32 years old, with the dental and life problems of a much older person. She’s a wife and the mother of three small children, whose husband is mostly unemployed, doing odd jobs to bring in what little money he can. She works full time as a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) in a nursing home, while also attending school to gain a more advanced degree. Between work and school, supporting a family of five and putting their needs before her own, the last thing she could think about was dental care!
But she had developed severe dental decay – a mouth full of problems that caused her great pain. She never smiled any more, due partly to the unsightly appearance of her decayed front teeth, and partly because she was exhausted from the stress and pain. She was finally forced by pain to seek out a dentist, but two different dentists wanted her to pay thousands of dollars up front, and she was unable to pay.
One day she had to leave work early due to facial pain, and a co-worker gave her the name of our director. By the time Sandy came to the clinic, she had developed a massive infection in a rear tooth that was causing her severe eye pain. That day, all Dr. McDonald could do was put her on antibiotics and pain medication. On the next visit, she received two fillings and two extractions.
Sandy will lose several more teeth and require a great deal more dental work before we are done with her, but she has enough remaining sound teeth to warrant partial dentures in the front, which will provide her with the attractive smile she needs to succeed. It is our hope to restore her to full dental health, so that she can smile, work, eat normally, and become able to provide for her family once again. The “commercial” value of the dental work we provide will be $8,000 or more.
Thomas Dooly, a veteran, was only 58 years old when he first came to us. But he looked so old that some of our staff thought he must have served in WWII. He had, in fact, served in Vietnam, but over the years, injuries, PTSD, personal tragedy, and dental decay had taken their toll.
Thomas had suffered from severe neck injuries during his service. His condition had deteriorated over time to the point that doctors at the VA hospital had implanted titanium rods and plates to provide the support he needed. He walked with braces on his legs and a cane. By Social Security standards, he was 100% disabled, so he qualified for disability, but by VA standards, he was only 70% disabled, so he failed to qualify for dental care. What little money he had went to his daughter-in-law for raising his grandson, whose father (Thomas’ son) had been killed before the child was born.
Our biggest hurdle was getting a release from the VA to treat him. After over a month of extremely frustrating red tape, we were finally able to get the clearance we needed. His teeth were in terrible condition, which had led to poor eating habits, infections, and deteriorating health. Thomas was emaciated, and pain showed in his face. He had severe infection in his mouth, which had progressed to the point that a flare-up could cause cellulitis, which, if it reached the titanium in his neck, could be potentially fatal.
Thomas was missing ten teeth, one of which he had pulled himself during the time he couldn’t get care. (This made us very sad.) He still had 15 salvageable teeth, but our first priority was to take out a badly infected molar and get him on antibiotics. We then gave him a thorough cleaning so that his gums could begin to heal and he could begin to eat and gain strength. Thus began the gradual process of restoring his mouth.
The first restorative work we did was to his upper front teeth, which were badly decayed, but able to be repaired with composite. Dr. Silverstein worked on him for two hours, at the end of which, he had an appealing smile for the first time in years. After seeing himself in the mirror, he hugged everyone in the office; all of us were in tears.
Over the next several months, we plan to put fillings in the remainder of Thomas’ teeth, almost all of which are decayed. Once the restoration is complete, we will arrange for him to receive partial dentures for the areas where teeth are missing. His quality of life is slowly improving; we can tell it in his voice and demeanor every time we see him.
It is hard not to have favorite patients, but with the hugs Thomas gives us and the gratitude he expresses at the end of every visit, he has swiftly become one.
Miguel Tamburro is a five year old Hispanic boy who was not allowed to register for kindergarten, as he was suffering from a huge abscess on an upper anterior baby tooth. The swelling was so large that his upper lip blocked his nasal passages, forcing him to breathe through his mouth. His father had taken him to several dentists who would not see him due to a lack of funds to pay for services rendered. The school’s social worker advised him to bring the boy to our office. It only took one look for us to bring him back and have the dentist examine him. No x-ray was necessary. The little boy sat bravely and quietly never shedding a tear while we numbed up the area and in just a few seconds removed the baby tooth and drained as much infection as we could. He was at least able to breathe through his nose when we were done. He gave each of us a hug as thanks. Once he saw his mother, of course the tears began. He was such a brave boy. His father gave us his last twenty-six cents as a donation. We all agreed it was the best and the most generous donation we had ever received.
Christopher and Katie Watson
Christopher and Katie Watson originally began coming to the clinic when we first worked out of a Dental Bus. They had suffered with dental problems for years. Due to their multiple medical problems, including cancer, they have not been able to work full time and thus did not have any type of insurance until they were able to get on disability.
Many of their medical problems developed due to poor diet. With extreme dental pain and the loss of many abscessed teeth, they simply were not able to eat a proper diet. Their dental care with us has been spread out over five years, as they would be interrupted by one medical crisis after another.
Four months ago, we were able to complete their care enough for them to be ready for upper and lower partial dentures. They were fitted for them by Affordable Dentures and have actually begun to eat a well-balanced diet. Their medical doctors have stated all along that diet was a key to their wellness.
With dental pain no longer a daily item for them, the Watsons are hopefully on the road to good nutrition and good health.
Fred Fowler is a classic example of the power of dental prosthetics to change lives. In 2007, he gave up everything and moved to Cashiers from Florida with the promise of a construction job and a place to live. The promise fell through after he had been here for a month, and Fred was left homeless and destitute. By then, he had become a regular church member, and the members of his congregation helped him the best they could by providing odd jobs and helping him to find a rental house. But Fred continued to get bad breaks. Eventually, he was forced out of the house and ended up living in his car once again. To make matters worse, he was sick from dental decay. His teeth had been bothering him for years, but they reached a point where he was in constant pain and living on liquids. Members of his church urged him to call the Clinic.
When Fred first came to us, he looked terrible. He was thin, pale, and obviously ill. He was suffering from fainting spells, which we guessed to be from hunger, and he was sleep deprived from pain. One look at his X-rays, and we knew the problem. Almost all of his teeth were terribly abscessed, some with severe infections and swelling. Sadly, none of them could be saved. This broke Fred’s heart. Dr. Smith took it slowly, extracting only the worst of the teeth at first. After the first extractions, Fred showed noticeable improvement, and he began to accept his fate. The remaining teeth were extracted over the course of four more appointments.
At the time, we had just received a $5,000 grant from the Cullasaja Women’s Club for prosthetics. Fred was our first full denture patient helped by this organization, but there were more to come. Through an arrangement with Affordable Dentures in Asheville, NC, Fred was fitted with complete dentures after four months of healing. He returned to us afterward for follow-up work, and we got the dentures fitting well. He began to smile again, and it wasn’t long before he had a job at the local Habitat for Humanity Store. A naturally giving person, Fred repaid us by painting our back door, and he is now an active volunteer in the church.
In December, our Executive Director ran into Fred in the local grocery. He had gained 15 pounds and looked terrific. He was in the process of putting a ham into his shopping cart, but stopped to give her a big hug. Grinning, with tears in his eyes, he told her that for Thanksgiving, he had “eaten more turkey than was legally allowed,” and that this was the first ham he had bought in 15 years!